How To More Effectively Lead A Production Crew: Lessons From The C-Suite

You've probably been on a video shoot where the director has been a complete dictator.

He might be a loud tyrant who blows up at the crew. Or somebody who terrifies everybody with his icy stare and silence.

Either way, you knew that he was not looking for feedback or helpful ideas from anybody. He wanted every aspect of the production executed exactly as he envisioned it. And in fact, would have been very happy to do all the crew jobs himself if he could just get a hold of that replicating machine Nikola Tesla invented in The Prestige.

At the other end of the spectrum is the guy or gal who wants to be everybody's friend. Stopping to tell a funny story, ordering lattes, and listening to everybody's ideas, they are extremely likable. Except for the fact that they can't get through the script on schedule and so their shoots require 19 hour days.

Then everybody hates them.

Is it possible that there's an optimal strategy for getting the most production work done in a day and ending up with a piece that's creatively brilliant?

You'd think that with the millions being poured into the study of business teams, somebody would figure out the secret formula for leading a digital production crew.

Or maybe, you say, you simply can't use MBA principles on a crew that's only going to be together for a day or two.

If you can keep reading, you'll get answers to both.

The Advantages Of Being A Temporary Team

A few years ago, academic researchers Brian Uzzi and Jarrett Spiro were looking for a way to measure the success of temporary teams. They wanted to know if it was an advantage or disadvantage to have a team form just for a given project and then go their separate ways.

Oddly enough, for the subject of their study they chose the Great White Way. No, not the Aryan Brotherhood--Broadway!

It's an environment filled with high-pressure deadlines, conflicting egos, and the need to be outstandingly creative. Like video production, putting on a Broadway show requires a team with diverse skills like staging, lighting, music, and of course, directing talent.

Because these artists may be working on multiple shows in a year, or even at the same time, they have developed an interconnected network of relationships. And they can often find themselves working on teams with old colleagues.

Specifically, Uzzi and Spiro were trying to determine if the strength or diversity of those relationships had any effect on the success of the show.

So they pulled crew lists for every musical produced on broadway from 1945 to 1989--all 474 productions. And if you think we're going to describe all the advance math used to map the relationships between the 2,092 artists who worked on those shows, you're nuts.

We're just going to skip ahead to what they found.

The success of the show did not directly correlate to the closeness of the crew's relationships to each other. To be more exact, it offered a limited advantage up to a point. But the shows that did the best (i.e., made the most money) were created by a mix of talented people--some who knew each other and some who were new.

This is good news for those of us who have to work on temporary teams for production. Familiarity is good. But you can do some of your best work alongside people you don't really know.

So now what about leadership tactics on the set? Do the pointy-headed business analysts have any tips for us there?

Yes, they do.

7 Ways To Lead A Successful Production Team

Every production is a challenge. To keep within your budget you have to set a shooting schedule and then keep things moving. At the same time Murphy's Law will be in effect and you're guaranteed to face a challenge or two that will require leadership to guide the crew through it.

Here are seven ways to be ready (cribbed from Entrepreneur Magazine and Harvard Business Review).

1. Lead With Purpose

You have to be the one in charge. The one who pulls the team together and is willing to make the tough decisions when things are looking doubtful. A good leader is not afraid of disagreement among the team. It's a sign that people care about what they're doing. He or she just needs to respond to it constructively.

2. Hire Top Talent And Crew

As biz guru Jim Collins says, "Before you can succeed, you have to get the right people on the bus." Hire people based on their skills, and just as important, for their ability to work with others. If you're a good leader, these kinds of people will want to work with you.

3. Express Your Vision Clearly

Everybody on the set (and the client) should be clear about what you're going for. And if you can't express your vision clearly, maybe you really don't what it is either. Making sure everybody is on the same page will allow you to better utilize the next tip.

4. Be Willing To Listen

Maybe there's a better way of getting what you want. So be open to suggestions. Just don't let it turn into a tearful sharing session where everybody's hugging and saying, "My dad never understood me."

5. Be Ready To Innovate

Have a Plan B. If your video calls for an extraordinary stroke of luck or a really difficult performance, you better have another way to get the shot. But usually the problem will be unforeseen and you're going to need to come up with a solution on the spot.

6. Decide Quickly When Things Are Uncertain

When something is obviously not working out, don't waste any more time on it. Pull the plug and move on to a new idea. Be decisive about your work-around. Don't second-guess yourself when you're burning daylight.

7. Manage With Existing Resources

Be creative with what you have. Who knows, your limitation might actually lead you to a better finished product. You've probably heard the story about the filming of Jaws. The mechanical shark kept breaking, so Spielberg just hid the monster for most of the movie. The surprise when you did see the full shark, made for a much better film.

So the good news is your success directing a production really comes down to your ability as a leader. And maybe that's the bad news, if you're not doing it effectively. The best leaders plan ahead, aren't reactive but proactive, and know what they're going to do when faced with adversity.

Of course, it's lots fun being the screaming dictator. Especially when you can wear the beret and carry a riding crop.